Contribution to GTI Roundtable "On Higher Education"
First of all, many thanks to Cristina Escrigas for her inspiring reflections and to the participants for so many insightful thoughts that came up in the discussion.
I highly agree with Escrigas when she points out that “it is time to rethink civilization itself.” It seems that we are much less civilized than what we pretend to be, and that the civilizing layer is very thin (as shown by recent conflicts, from the war in former Yugoslavia to the Greek crisis to the current refugee crisis, the three happening in the heart of the good old European civilization...). Despite our aspiration to democracy, equality, and peace, we have been cultivating an ambiguous relation to power and violence (in all their forms), to competition and hierarchy, to success and defeat, leading to permanent tensions in our cultural and societal foundations. After decades of seemingly unlimited economic growth, almost unbridled techno-scientific development, and a steadily rising level of education in numerous countries, two main observations have to be made: poverty and social injustice have barely declined (or have even risen), and our planet approaches its limits. For all this, we have to question our educational, scientific, and cultural system, as well in its substance as in its form.
Therefore, I also agree with Cristina Escrigas when she says that sustainability has to become a major issue for HEIs where HEIs must assure that all students attain “a basic systemic competency” and a shared understanding of the great challenges of the twenty-first century through a transversal, pluralistic, inter- and transdisciplinary teaching, paralleled by a radical change in our conception of progress and the good life. In order to do so, courageous decisions in our educational and cultural system are necessary. (There is a decisive margin between a smooth change in rhetoric while doing business as usual with a bit of “greening” and the call for a radical upheaval in our societal model.)
Of course, the issue of sustainability is not new to HEIs. A range of initiatives all over the world tend to holistically integrate sustainability into research, teaching, and campus operations. Sustainability in higher education integrates approaches based on humanistic values; is pluralistic, transdisciplinary, and emancipatory; and proposes a multi-perspective approach on the interconnection of the ecological, economical, and social fact. The question is rather if this is taken seriously enough and accordingly prioritized in university policies. Right now, it is clear that sustainability in curricula and in research programs is far away from being as prioritized as would be necessary. However, the special responsibility of HEIs (that makes education and research so political) lies in the fact that they are preparing future generations of scientists, engineers, managers, politicians, philosophers, and artists, whom we will need to build a socially more just and ecologically more sustainable world.
In this context, HEIs would also have to reconsider more closely the (historically not new) claim that communities are the basis of all civilized world because local economies are closely connected with social and environmental issues, because they encourage direct participation of citizens, and because they are good places to develop appropriate answers to collectively identified problems. Working more directly with communities would allow HEIs to “think global and act local” and to respond to uncountable important (and inspiring) challenges. Such a decentralized and local engagement would also bring change in the production and use of knowledge. It would make techno-scientific innovation subject to democratic scrutiny, lead to sharing and co-production of knowledge, and strengthen the local relevance of research while valuing different forms of knowledge. Action research (or participatory research or community building research, however you might call it), by mingling academic knowledge with local, traditional, and professional knowledge, is a powerful tool in developing relevant knowledge and solutions. But as a (not so new anymore) paradigm it is (not surprisingly) still struggling to conquer the university teaching and the laboratories although it can be applied to such issues as agriculture, environment, health, urban and rural development, transportation, energy, and social issues. Participatory research also allows for a new understanding of what is efficient, sound, or important in broadening frames and indicators.
We have to (re)learn to appreciate what is useful rather than what is big, to enjoy what is fruitful rather than what is powerful, what is close rather than far, what is supporting rather than dominating us, what is given and vital rather than rare and expensive. We should teach our children and students (not only in HEI but also in primary and secondary school) how extraordinary ordinary life is. We have to teach them self-esteem, self-respect, and esteem and respect for others. If mind capacities of children, such as needed for mathematics or natural sciences, are today highly valued in the (Western) school system, abilities that call for artistic and craft skills or social and collective behaviour suffer from lesser consideration. Solidarity, creativity, critical thinking, and collective acting should gain ground as central elements of education in general. In other words, we need a “Wiederverzauberung der Welt” (“re-enchantment of the world”) as a response to the “Entzauberung der Welt” (“disenchantment of the world”). (And by the way, we could change our figure of the modern hero from a warrior to a gardener).
How to make HEI move? If we would have the formula...! Or maybe we would have to create a new kind of transition universities. What is clear is that only a common effort of many actors can reorient or recreate universities. For this, we would need a dynamic including students (claiming other teaching in content and form), university staff (willing to step out of the predefined path), civil society (claiming its part in and from higher education) and politicians (willing to create political and financial incentives to support such a move). Such a process would also oblige HEIs to reflect on their missions and objectives, and to redefine their identity, either as supplier for economic competitiveness and growth, or as actors close to problems and people and acknowledging their political responsibility. (One current political frame that could provide help for such an endeavor is the recently adopted UN Sustainable Development Goals. With all the criticisms they deserve, they could nevertheless be used as a unique opportunity to reinforce and intensify the sustainability/transition dynamics in HEIs worldwide.) Analyzing and revealing the systemic problems we are facing as humanity; proposing tools for how to overcome them; and raising new generations of citizens-scientists, citizens-engineers, citizens-managers, and so on, will then contribute to develop relevant, just and feasible solutions. The growth-driven consumer society is historically a very young phenomenon, having emerged just a few generations ago but its cataclysmic consequences are bringing us rapidly closer to boundaries of no return. So the stakes are high since we have to collectively overcome the ideological lock-in in the growth and consumption dogma and to reinvent our humanity.